With a third career title under her belt and a new personal-high ranking of No. 3 in the world, Tunisian Ons Jabeur has lots to celebrate on the back of a stellar week in Berlin.
But she will have to hold off on any festivities as she quickly switches her focus to teaming up with Serena Williams in Eastbourne on Tuesday, in preparation for next week’s Wimbledon.
American legend Williams will make her first competitive appearance in nearly 12 months when she steps onto the lawns of Eastbourne, where she has chosen to only contest doubles, alongside Jabeur.
The 27-year-old is better acquainted with Serena’s older sister Venus, who sang her praises last year before the Tunisian defeated her en route to the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Venus and Jabeur have practiced together on multiple occasions, and the seven-time major champion once described her as one of her “favorite people.”
Jabeur’s previous interactions with Serena have been friendly, but brief, which is why it came as a huge surprise when she received the call last month that the 23-time Grand Slam winner was keen to partner up with her in doubles at the grass-court event in Eastbourne this week.
“I usually speak with Venus more than Serena. I feel like there is a 50 percent chance that Venus had something to do with it,” Jabeur told Arab News in an interview on Sunday, after clinching the title in Berlin.
“It was great, you would say yes right away of course. It’s a pleasure that she chose me, it’s unbelievable. I was having dinner with Ellen Perez (her occasional doubles partner), and I was like, ‘Ellen I’m not playing doubles with you anymore, it got serious now. Now I’m not accepting to play doubles with anyone with less than 20 Grand Slams.’
“It’s great, I cannot wait to see her (Serena), and I cannot wait to speak with her, it’s such an honor and pleasure,” Jabeur said.
It is unclear exactly why Serena picked Jabeur to join her on her comeback tournament, but it could have something to do with the fact the crafty Tunisian has been in great form and is currently ranked No. 2 in the Race to the WTA Finals.
Jabeur has tallied up 30 victories so far this season, second only to the top-ranked Iga Swiatek, and is one of only three players on the WTA tour to win multiple singles titles in 2022.
“I don’t know honestly why she picked me but I’m glad that she did. Maybe Venus had something to do with it, maybe she was watching a bit of tennis and she saw some North African girl playing good lately so maybe that kind of helped. I hope she was watching the Madrid final as well,” she added.
Jabeur, who made history as the first Tunisian, Arab, or African to win a WTA 1000 title when she triumphed in Madrid last month, said: “Honestly I’m nervous but I’m going to try to focus on playing tennis and maybe not admiring Serena a lot because I’m such a big fun and it’s honestly a huge honor for me to share the court with her and to kind of be part of her comeback journey.”
Jabeur has already won two titles from four finals reached this season and the triumph in Berlin came at just the right moment after she had suffered a first-round exit at Roland Garros, where she was considered one of the top contenders for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
While her early defeat in Paris was clearly disappointing, Jabeur did not spend too much time dwelling on it.
“I think everything happened for a reason. The French Open was kind of tough for me, I had to fail and get up again maybe, that’s how I think sometimes, to come back stronger.
“I’m glad I took some time off to clear my head. It was the first time I felt that much pressure, so it was tough to handle a little bit but I’m learning from it, obviously, and I just focused on the grass season, to get ready and be here; that was the most important thing, to be prepared.
“I took a week off, that helped me recover mentally and we got back to practicing. It was a little bit tough at the beginning but I’m glad that I came back even stronger,” she added.
In her first grass-court tournament of the season, Jabeur knocked out some tough opposition, including French Open finalist Coco Gauff and Olympic champion Belinda Bencic, on her way to the trophy in Berlin.
Her early Roland Garros exit gave her the chance to spend more time on grass before competing on it and the work paid off right away.
She said: “I practiced on a terrible court in Paris, so it was great coming here to Berlin because the courts are good, so maybe that helped me play good.
“Physically I was ready, I was practicing a lot of fitness with Karim (Kamoun, her husband and fitness trainer), so that also helped me.
“The confidence and the good pressure of being the No. 1 seed also did help me a lot. And I practiced with a lot of great players here, such as Bianca Andreescu and Karolina Muchova, and I could see myself how I was playing on the practice court, how confident I was, and I think that really helped me bring my A-game.”
With a target on her back entering Paris last month on the heels of winning Madrid and making the final in Rome, Jabeur needed some time to adjust to her new position as a genuine contender at the majors. While winning slams has always been her goal, it is different when her opponents begin to see her as a favorite, and step on court against her ready to play freely as clear underdogs.
“Maybe yes it is a different kind of pressure. I always try to do that in front of everyone; I think everyone wants to play good in front of me, especially now being a top-10 player,” Jabeur, who became the first Arab player – man or woman – to crack that elite ranking bracket last October, added.
“For a while now, I think everybody wants to grab that top-10 win (against me); it’s an extra pressure but I feel like I’m getting used to this pressure. I’m the kind of person that likes a little bit of pressure because when I’m too loose I don’t play really good so to put pressure on myself and to make myself do things, it helps me a lot to play my best tennis.”
This time last year, Jabeur had just picked up a maiden WTA title, on the grass courts of Birmingham, and went on to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time in her career, and the second time at a major.
Ranked 24 in the world at the time, she beat three Grand Slam champions in a row, in the form of Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza, and Swiatek, before falling to Aryna Sabalenka in the last-eight stage.
She said: “I feel like now I’m a different player. I am handling much better the pressure; putting more expectations on myself because now, if you tell me I’ll be happy with a quarterfinal at Wimbledon, I’ll tell you ‘no, I want to do better.’
“Also coming as a top-10 player is a much different position than being 20-something in the world. I think now I’ve played even more matches, so the confidence is higher for sure, and so many situations I can manage much better. Like if you’re being up, or serving for the set, or playing someone more aggressive, I think I can handle those matches much better than before.”
Jabeur acknowledges that “it sounds amazing” to hear the words “world No. 3” announced before her name but is trying not to get too wrapped up by this latest milestone.
“I don’t even have the time to digest all of these things, but I’m pretty happy. I honestly wasn’t looking at the ranking and I don’t like to look at the ranking, but I think it’s all part of the plan and I’m really glad,” she added.
She is within touching distance of second-ranked Anett Kontaveit, who is just 170 points ahead of her, but is still far off the ever-dominant Swiatek, who is on a 35-match winning streak and more than 4,000 points ahead of them both.
“My goal this season is to catch Iga maybe, I don’t know, let’s try it and maybe have a rivalry with Iga; that would be great. I have my eyes on the No. 2 spot for sure,” Jabeur said.
Having learned her lesson from Roland Garros, where she felt she was a bit burnt out after playing too many matches in the build-up, Jabeur purposefully did not compete on grass the week before Berlin and is looking to arrive at Wimbledon both mentally and physically fresh, buoyed by the fact her sports psychologist Melanie Maillard will be with her at the event.
Maillard and the rest of the team will not be the only ones supporting Jabeur in south-west London next week. Throughout her run in Berlin, the top seed celebrated her wins in front of scores of Tunisian fans – their football chants echoing around the stadium every step of the way.
“Allez, allez, forza ragazzi, wahda wahda lel finale,” (come on, come on, come on guys, step by step toward the final), has become a popular song following Jabeur from one arena to the other around the globe, and will no doubt be heard when she steps out for her opening match at Wimbledon.
“They’ve already invited themselves to Wimbledon, everybody is coordinating to come there,” she added, referring to the Tunisian fans who plan on making the trip from Berlin to London to support her.